When Anh and I first decided to travel to South America we looked to the obvious places: Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Machu Picchu, and Santiago. To be honest, we had probably never thought of the capital city of Uruguay. It wasn’t even on the radar, but with Machu Picchu hiking guides being booked until the end of the year and Visa issues into Brazil, we took the closest and cheapest alternative – Montevideo, Uruguay. We were armed with pretty much only a few facts: Montevideo is the capital city of Uruguay, it’s very close to Buenos Aires, and there are 3:1 cattle to people in the entire country. One episode of Anthony Bourdain later (being the carnivores and adventures we are), we pulled the trigger and bought 2 one-way tickets. What awaited us after 24 hours of traveling was a city that had a different feel than anywhere we had ever been.
At first glance, Montevideo seemed just like any other city. After landing we took a 30-min bus ride into the city (which was an adventure all on its own). The bus had standing room only so when 2 Americans with 70 lbs of luggage got on, we received a lot of stares. For you to fully understand how cramped this really was, my backpack was about as wide as the aisles. To cap it off, we didn’t even know where we were going. This was when my infant level of Spanish kicked in. I began throwing out every and any word I knew to get the assistance of the lady next me. With the help of a map and some aggressive hand signals, we had it slightly figured out. Then during one of the stops, a girl about 20 years old passed by us on her way out and said in perfect English, “have a good trip.” Imagine the conversation from her vantage point! It must have been the funniest thing to watch.
Ok sorry for the long side-bar, back to Montevideo. As we wandered toward our hostel, we noticed that the streets we rather empty for an afternoon. Montevideo is about the size of Philadelphia, but really doesn’t have the feel or glam of a modern day city. The skyline halts around 15 stories with rundown buildings that seemed out of place and sidewalks that needed major repairs. Having been occupied by Argentinian, Spanish, British, Brazilian, Portuguese, and French influence, the city displayed a lack of identity and struggle to find its own personality. It didn’t have much draw for an international traveler, as we tried to find it. Unlike any other coastal city we’ve been to, Montevideo did not have any cafes, bars, patios, or restaurants lining the beach. It was as if the inhabitants of Montevideo were oblivious to the beauty that was in their front yard. After miles of walking, we couldn’t find a place to have a drink to enjoy the view and bought a bottle of wine to bring back to the hostel (yes, I am very romantic).
Variety in food is not something that Uruguayans and in particular, citizens of Montevideo, have a lot of. However, it doesn’t mean that they don’t do it right (vegetarians, you may want to skip this section). I am talking of course parrilla, or when translated it simply means grilling. After watching Bourdain gorge down on plates of meat, we knew we needed to visit the famous Mercado del Puerto near the port of Montevideo. With every step closer I noticed I had begun to involuntarily salivate. I love to smoke meats at home and have my own home smoker, but this was smoking on ecstasy. The masterful mix of both the smell charcoal and natural wood chips filled the air outside. With the anticipation nearly having me jump up and down like a kid getting ready to go into a candy shop, we walked inside the red brick building.
It was open layout with high ceilings, brick walls, and bars after bar lined up. The bars do not showcase booze but rather the 15-ft wide open brick chimney with barbeque grates lined with sizzling, crackling, juicy cuts of red meat waiting for me to devour them. I was in heaven! It was hard choosing which bar to try until we saw an Uruguayan businessman devouring down some baby back ribs. We immediately grabbed the stools next to his. As we sat there, the host poured us a complimentary glass of Medio y Medio (1/2 champagne and 1/2 wine) then we were presented with slabs of ribs to choose from. Let’s just say, the experience and flavors definitely met our expectations and we fell in love with parrilla! We were lucky and got the chance to try it again the next night, only this time with the local Uruguayans at the hostel. I got to watch them during the preparation as they used a mixture of both coals and wood pieces to start the fire. It was an honor to be invited into their intimate circle since parrilla is mostly shared between family and friends. The barbeque ribs, sweetbreads (innards), chorizo, and blood sausage were to die for! Possibly one of the most memorable experience yet.
Yerba Mate. You’ve probably heard of it before or seen a commercialized can of it tucked in the drink aisle of Whole Foods, but it is EVERYWHERE here. Wandering through Montevideo, we saw many Uruyuaguans (mostly students and elderly) holding a special cup with a metal straw-like stick, and a thermos bag. It was cult-like and reminded us very much of our own Seattlelites and their Starbucks cup in hand. After more interrogation and study, we realized that Yerba Mate is very common beverage in South America and in some countries, surpasses coffee or tea as a stimulant. It naturally contains a lot of nutritional values and has a very unique social symbolism behind (its origin and details are very fascinating and you can read more here http://guayaki.com/mate/130/Yerba-Mate.html). One of our hostelmate shared with us his gourd (cup of Yerba Mate) and we got to try it. To our unfamiliar tongues, it was really bitter and has a lot of tannin. Not yet a fan of its taste but who knows, we may learn to love it by the end of our trip!
All in all, Montevideo was a very work-oriented city voided of vibrancy and pizazz. We are still glad we had a chance to experience what it had to offer as the streets felt safe and the people are inviting. We walked over 20 miles, met good people who welcomed us to their dinner table, and ate some of the most amazing barbeque…AND I got to do it with the most amazing woman in the world! Montevideo has left me with the hunger for more.
Until next time, keep exploring!